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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Orthodox Blues

"Everything bad in man is only accidental." Father Gabriel

Lenin Square was packed to capacity during Tbilisi’s May Day celebration of 1956*. Two gigantic portraits hung from the Executive Committee of the Communist Party building; one of Stalin and the other Lenin (3 months after Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin). At the height of the commemoration, Stalin suddenly burst into flames, followed by Lenin. The crowd is said to have froze in horror.

As the portraits burned, a man appeared from the second floor window and gave the following sermon:

“The Lord said, ‘Thou shall not make unto thee idols or any graven images… Thou shall not bow down thyself to them nor serve them for I am the Lord your God… Thou shall have no other gods!’
“People come to your senses! The Georgians have always been Christians. So why are you bowing down before these idols? Jesus Christ died and on the third day rose again… But your cast idols will never be resurrected. Even during their life they were dead…”

It didn’t take long for the authorities to get Father Gabriel out of the office he locked himself into and when they dragged him outside, the crowd went ape-shit and pummeled him into a bloody pulp, for he was an enemy of the people. It is said they fractured his skull and broke his bones in 17 places, and he lay unconscious for a month.

The priest was imprisoned for several years and after his release, the Church wouldn’t have anything to do with him for a decade or more. He lived with his mother on a pension he was allotted as a certified lunatic, of 17 rubles a month. People were afraid of Fr. Gabriel and his mother and would often sic their dogs on them. Sometimes he would beg in front of a church until the priests threw him out. When his mother died he moved into a cave.

Today Fr. Gabriel is venerated as a Holy Monk and people pray at his grave at Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.

People are fickle. The children of those who hated Fr. Gabriel now believe the church is the most trusted institution in Georgia. Today, diss the Georgian Patriarch, His Holiness Illia II, and you could get beaten to a pulp. Such is the combative nature of Georgian Christians.

My comrade of the quill, Mathew Collin, has written what happened to pro-government think tanker, Tea Tutberidze, who posted a satirical video of the Patriarch on her Facebook page. While she probably should have known what was coming, Tea is now Georgian public enemy number one and has become The Caucasian answer to Sinead O’Connor, who burned a picture of Pope John Paul II on American TV in 1992. In Georgia, the cops had to prove they were Christian by catching up with the kids who created the clip. Now they must decide on how to punish them for dissing the Pope, which is almost against the law.

The problem with many self-declared Christians is they forget what it means to be a Christian. Here, there are people who believe being a component of one of the first Christianized nations in the world is like having a Pass Go card for the pearly gates. You don’t have to work for it. Heaven is free for Georgian club members.

A lot is said about Georgian tolerance to other religions, which is fairly accurate, unless you are a Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, or some other uninvited proselytizing faith. Otherwise it's okay to even "belong to that cult, the Roman Catholics," but celebrating Halloween here is taken as a threat to the nation.

Some people in Georgia believe the Church has become politicized and are afraid to criticize it, less they be figuratively or literally mauled. They worry the line that separates church from state is being erased by a growing fundamentalist tendency in the populace. This forces the government to act Christian from time to time, because nobody sees ministers cross themselves when they pass a church in a Landcruiser with tinted windows.

*Other versions place the date at 1953